The misguided evolution of the ‘nuclear option’

THE MISGUIDED EVOLUTION OF THE ‘NUCLEAR OPTION’…. Fox News’ Mike Emanuel, reporting from the White House this morning, told viewers that Democrats are “considering the nuclear option” to pass health care reform. He was referring to the reconciliation process, subjecting at least part of reform to an up-or-down vote.

It was an odd choice of words, but it’s become increasingly common. Josh Marshall noted yesterday, “Seems like only a few years ago the ‘nuclear option’ was abolishing the filibuster. Now it’s just pushing through a health care bill without Chuck Grassley?”

That’s about the gist of it. On Monday, CNN’s Anderson Cooper called reconciliation the “nuclear option.” CNN’s Kiran Chetry used the identical phrase yesterday morning. Fox News’ Bill Sammon, Dick Morris, and Sean Hannity all described reconciliation as the “nuclear option” earlier this week.

It’s a rather dramatic rhetorical escalation. Just a couple of months ago, former Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist said Senate Dems can certainly pass health care reform through the reconciliation process. He told radio host Bill Bennett, “[Reconciliation is] legal, it’s ethical, you can do it.” Indeed, Republicans, when they were in the majority, used reconciliation with some regularity.

But that was then. Now, Republicans and political reporters are describing reconciliation as the “nuclear option” as a way to make it seem as if reconciliation is some kind of outrageous abuse of the legislative process. It’s meant to remind political observers of the time Republicans planned to eliminate judicial filibusters through an outrageous abuse of the legislative process.

They’re actually opposites. When Senate Republicans crafted the real “nuclear option” in 2005, the idea was to change the rules in the middle of the game. The Senate can change its rules with 67 votes, but Trent Lott & Co. thought they’d try it with 51 votes. Senate Dems, at the time, threatened all-out political war over this, which is why Lott referred to his underhanded scheme as the “nuclear option.”

Reconciliation, in contrast, is part of the existing Senate rules. No one’s talking about changing anything — just following the process that’s already in place.

Thomas Mann, Norm Ornstein, and Molly Reynolds — hardly reflexive partisans — recently said it would be “perfectly reasonable for Democrats to use the process for health care reform that both parties have used regularly for other major initiatives.” Given that many recent uses of reconciliation have come from Republicans, it’s hardly an unjust conclusion.

There’s nothing “nuclear” about it.